The East Denver Y, 1987

Because I have a husband who saves everything, I mean everything, on his hard drive, he recently found some of my writing I hadn’t seen in years. This one is about the old East Denver YMCA in the Clayton neighborhood. We were members there for ten years or so, starting in the mid-1980s. Wellington Webb was Denver’s mayor, Michael Jackson was alive and well, and apparently there was a Babe Ruth movie. The Y left the building in the early 2000s and it sat empty for a decade. If you have facts or memories about that wonderful place, please post them in the comments: I found little information online.

When Phil and I get to the gym, Roger and Steve are usually already there and stay after we leave. They are younger and have more stamina than we do. Steve’s taller, more slender of build, more caramel of color. Roger is darker, shorter, and strikingly handsome. I have seen young women go into a kind of trance when they look at him. Roger and Steve are recent college graduates, come to the gym from work in their suits and ties.

We just missed the excitement. One of the weights on the universal machine was stuck, Steve and some other guys trying to pry it loose, and 180 pounds crashed down on Steve’s fingers. He’s nursing them as we come in, the swelling already apparent.

Rog is having a great time with this event. “The audience saw it coming, saw the weights begin to move. Get your hands out! Get ’em out! But no good. Boom!”

The other guy got slammed too. He went home to put his fingers on ice. We work out for a while. Two others start messing with the machine, trying to see what’s hanging it up.

“Watch out, this sucker’s two for two,” Rog advises, then calls over his shoulder: “Hey, Steve, come give us a hand.”

Signing in at the weight room, I noticed Babe Ruth has been here every day this week, but Rog, who is always here, has not. “Rog,” I say, “did you notice Babe Ruth’s been working out here?”

“Yeah,” he says. “Isn’t that something? The movie comes out and all of a sudden, Babe Ruth sightings.” He shakes his head, amazed, and goes back to lifting.

Warren is another story. He’s a teacher and teachers are all of a type, much like New York taxi drivers. We arrive for our Saturday morning workout and Warren looks at his watch. “A little late today, aren’t we?” We keep thinking he’ll mark us tardy and send us to the office. “No, no, no, you’re doing that wrong. Keep your back straight, see?” Warren is six-five, corrects everyone and gets away with it.

Roger contemplates a kid using the chin up bar as a jungle gym, snaking his skinny body all over it. “When you’re young, you got stomach muscles for nothing and don’t even know it.” We all look down to the place where, in theory, we have stomach muscles. Roger sighs. We all sigh. Maybe another set of crunches.

The East Denver Y’s in a mostly black neighborhood, has a black board of directors and staff. Sometimes Mayor Webb and his entourage pass the weight room on their way to play basketball in the gym. These days there’s a mix of black and white, male and female adults in the weight room. A white guy spots a black guy. A black guy shows a white guy how to do a particular curl. The talk is easy, running through current affairs and sports to the best way to work your lats or the last movie someone saw. If an alien dropped into this gym, he’d have no idea there were race problems in America. Or, if he stayed long enough, he’d know there were some, but not in the weight room.

Roger works at the Tech Center, drives a late-model Beemer with tinted windows. Reason enough to stop him, those suburban cops think. I guess that’s what they think. Roger can’t figure out any other reason why he’s been pulled over for an I.D. check, no ticket issued, three times in the last two years. “Do I look like a drug dealer?” Roger demands, with upturned hands.

Steve examines him critically. “You look like your calves could use some work, that’s what you look like.” Roger’s attention shifts instantly. As all the regulars know, he worries a lot about his lower legs, which he thinks are too skinny.

Glenn is establishing the worth of Michael Jackson’s latest record by telling us how many have been sold.

“Just because it’s popular doesn’t mean it’s good,” Phil observes.

“That’s a grown-up statement,” Roger comments.

“Still, he’s kind of a hero,” Glenn says.

“Why?” Phil demands. “I think he’s always wanted to be a middle class white girl.”

“What?!” Glenn reels under the blow, drops the bar back in its rests.

“Phil’s got a point, man. Look at how he’s changed, that face job–” Steve adds.

“Yeah, and you ever notice how he’s lighter now than he was a few years ago?”

“But, but that’s all for show biz and stuff,” Glenn sputters.

“Probably the next thing you’ll hear,” Roger winds up, going for the gut, “he’ll have a sex change.”

Glenn looks to be in a state of shock. “Sex change,” he mutters, staring into space.

I believe we just did to Glenn what finding out there’s no Santa does to kids. But it can’t all be peaches and cream at the Y.


Posted in Humor, Memoir, Neighborhood | 2 Comments

Gunfire and Rain

We’re watching a movie gun battle when we hear the sound of actual gunfire: rapid shots, from the apartments north of us. I look in time to see four young men, perhaps Hispanic, speed past on foot, one south down the sidewalk, another across the street, two turning into our yard. A bay window on that side of our house provides shelter behind it. Phil orders me away from windows, but not before I hear an agonized exclamation from one of the young men.

Seeing the runners, I dial 911, listen to a recording asking me to wait for the operator, a message repeated in Spanish, then two languages I don’t know and I’ve heard the cry of that young man crouched behind our bay window, so I know he’s hurt. Finally, the calm, methodical 911 operator goes through her questions as she’s supposed to do and I’m thinking, he’s shot, do you hear me, so I repeat several times, “I think he’s been shot.”

Phil stays where he can see them, verifies there are two: white shirt, striped shirt, baseball caps, information I relay. The operator says they’ve had several calls and officers are en route and how many shots were there and do I want the police to contact me. I don’t know how many shots; they were fast and in the midst of Mexican movie shots. From his guard post, Phil announces that the two are leaving. Out front, we see flashing lights, patrol cars, an ambulance. The young men hurry to those lights. By the time we step outside, police have taped off the scene and EMTs are treating the one wounded.

When we moved to this city neighborhood in 1984, there was a turf war between Bloods and Crips and many such events, including one on our block. Then as now, the shooting happened in the apartments. Then as now, those who did the shooting and being shot were young Black or Hispanic males. Then, homeowners were mostly black. Now, thirty years later, mostly white folk tumble onto front yards. My neighbor who has a view of that side of my house says, “when they saw me looking at them, they said, ‘get away from the window: the guys with guns are still out there.’” Wounded and yet trying to warn someone else. “He bled all over your garden hose,” my neighbor adds.

The ambulance takes the young man away. He was shot in the arm. I mention the blood to a tall young cop, but perhaps it doesn’t matter, since they have the injured party? He takes a look, finds the shiny red rounds consistent with the wound he’s already seen, wanted to be sure there wasn’t another victim. “These guys aren’t gang-related,” he says. “They were just outside in time for the drive-by.” He asks me not to clean it up; they might want photos. The cop seems frazzled, says they had another shooting this morning and whatever beef these gangs have with each other right now, it doesn’t seem to be resolving.

We stay out a bit longer, learn our neighbor to the south is having trouble with her arthritis. Neighbors to the north were just finishing dinner, came out with wine glasses, introduce their guests. The young woman next door is freaked, won’t stay outside with us. She’s new. I want to tell her she’s white and has little to fear: living in the same neighborhood doesn’t mean living in the same world. Instead, I observe, “We haven’t had one of these for years. I thought we were done with them, what with gentrification and economic recovery.”

But think of Baltimore: for some there’s been no recovery, as a black professor from Johns Hopkins points out. “I have no problems with police,” he says, “but I’m not on those streets.” The most cursory search shows U. S. race riots erupt every few years. Violence gets media attention while the flames burn. When the smoke clears, we don’t fix what matters. In Denver a new generation of young men who see no hope of a better future have again joined gangs. They are again failing to learn what our entire species seems incapable of learning, that the revenge game, once begun, has no end.

We finish our fatalistic Mexican movie, “Colosio: The Assassination,” in which the truth seekers die and the bad guys get away with it. Except for a dog barking incessantly in someone’s backyard, the neighborhood is quiet, and soon after we go to bed the dog falls silent too. The next morning is overcast, and at breakfast we read the Sunday paper, which has nothing about our incident. A steady rain begins. Outside my bay window, dried blood is being washed away.

Posted in Neighborhood | 3 Comments

Holbrook and Twain

I saw Hal Holbrook’s “Mark Twain Tonight” in the early 1960s in Miami. I think I was a first year college student. A luminous image of the spotlighted actor in his white suit and hair, waving his cigar around, spilling wit and wisdom from the stage, stayed with me all these years. He must have been 36 or so and did a grand imitation of an old man. It was the first professional live theatre I’d ever seen. I was enthralled.

Growing up mostly in small Florida towns to working class parents, the closest thing to theatre I’d known was the weekly radio broadcast of the Grand Ol’ Opry, and yet, I was drawn to this essentially literary experience like a bee to orange blossoms. You do come into the world with your own nature, and those you’re born to should learn to honor that.

Seeing the show advertised this year, I was astonished. Born in 1925, Holbrook’s 90 years old. He’s been performing this one-man show more than six decades, started when he was a college student. His Denver performance was at the Buell, but he was also scheduled for a Q & A after the screening of the documentary, “Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey,” at the film center, a more intimate space. We’re film society members and were delighted.

During that talkback Holbrook launched into several Twain bits, has hundreds of them, keeps many more fresh in his head than he’ll need for a show. Did I tell you he’s 90?

“You never get tired of this guy,” he said, and gave us an example. Leafing through a book he hadn’t looked at in years, Holbrook came across an excerpt from Tom Sawyer Abroad he’d never noticed before. What’s in the news right now? he asked. The Middle East, of course. The chaos and violence there. Twain wrote this 120 years ago, yet it has relevance today. And he launched into the opening of what follows:

Well, we went out in the woods on the hill, and Tom told us what it was. It was a crusade.

“What’s a crusade?” I says.

He looked scornful, the way he’s always done when he was ashamed of a person, and says:

“Huck Finn, do you mean to tell me you don’t know what a crusade is?”

“No,” says I, “I don’t. And I don’t care to, nuther. I’ve lived till now and done without it, and had my health, too. But as soon as you tell me, I’ll know, and that’s soon enough… Now, then, what’s a crusade?”…

“Why, a crusade is a kind of war.”

I thought he must be losing his mind. But no, he was in real earnest, and went right on, perfectly ca’m.

“A crusade is a war to recover the Holy Land from the paynim.”

“Which Holy Land?”

“Why, the Holy Land—there ain’t but one.”

“What do we want of it?”

“Why, can’t you understand? It’s in the hands of the paynim, and it’s our duty to take it away from them.”

“How did we come to let them git hold of it?”

“We didn’t come to let them git hold of it. They always had it.”

“Why, Tom, then it must belong to them, don’t it?”

“Why of course it does. Who said it didn’t?”

I studied over it, but couldn’t seem to git at the right of it, no way. I says:

“It’s too many for me, Tom Sawyer. If I had a farm and it was mine, and another person wanted it, would it be right for him to—”

“Oh, shucks! you don’t know enough to come in when it rains, Huck Finn. It ain’t a farm, it’s entirely different. You see, it’s like this. They own the land, just the mere land, and that’s all they DO own; but it was our folks, our Jews and Christians, that made it holy, and so they haven’t any business to be there defiling it. It’s a shame, and we ought not to stand it a minute. We ought to march against them and take it away from them.”

“Why, it does seem to me it’s the most mixed-up thing I ever see! Now, if I had a farm and another person—”

“Don’t I tell you it hasn’t got anything to do with farming? Farming is business, just common low-down business: that’s all it is, it’s all you can say for it; but this is higher, this is religious, and totally different.”

“Religious to go and take the land away from people that owns it?”

“Certainly; it’s always been considered so.”

From Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer Abroad, 1894, with gratitude to Hal Holbrook, actor and Twain scholar


Posted in Education, Memoir | 4 Comments

Transitions: Several Types, All the Same

Present to Past

A year ago this week, I was in Barcelona. It rained relentlessly the three days our high school tour was there. I was robbed in Barcelona, lost my wallet without a clue it was happening: credit card, all my cash. I was cold and damp and jetlagged. The morning we left for Madrid, sun and blue sky appeared.

And yet now, looking back, I remember Gaudi, Parque Güell, Sagrada Familia, the delightful ninth grade girls assigned to me, the glass of cava I drank for Mónica Lavín, hams hanging above the bar, splendid narrow streets whose balconies blocked the sky. “What an experience,” I tell people. “I wouldn’t have missed it.” Once an event shifts sufficiently behind us, times of tedium and ugly moments fade while joyful memories swell. Approach “the good old days” with extreme caution. Chances are, they were never that good. Ah, but I loved Spain.

Jamon in Barcelona

Jamon in Barcelona

Winter to Spring

This year, we had 80-degree days in March. It was unnerving. I went for walks without a jacket. Brazen crocuses burst purple petals through a crochet of last year’s dead leaves, elms and maples went red and swollen at the tips of their branches, crabapples and plums broke into bloom. It was dry and I set the hose out. Watering in March. 80 degrees in March, our allegedly snowiest month.

Denver crabapple

Denver crabapple

The neighbor got out his motorcycle, rumbling not heard since some mild November day. I opened windows that hadn’t opened in months. Across the alley, they opened the umbrella over the backyard picnic table and the two little ones—bigger now than when I last saw them—spread toys over the patio. I’d been drinking nothing but coffee and hot tea, suddenly craved limeade.

My concentration slipping, I was drawn to the sunny yard, my easy winter mooring to the desk suddenly loosened. I began flowerbed cleanup, all the while thinking, “too soon.” A certain satisfaction accompanied the cold front that arrived with April, snow falling steadily into the night, though I knew it wouldn’t last. “This is more like it,” I declared, and returned to my desk.

Endings and Beginnings

We chug along smoothly at school, students and teachers, once the startup jostling is done, establish a certain rhythm, class to class, week to week. The education train glides along the rails with barely a bump. However, once an interruption like spring break looms before us, the pace starts to flag, the harness to chafe. Days before break, teachers exclaim, “oh, I’m so tired of these kids.” Days before break, students are already gone, a few physically, most of them mentally. “What you’re writing,” I reiterate, “is a monologue, not a soliloquy. You remember the difference?” “Ms. Dubrava,” a student happily replies, “I’m going to California for spring break.”

Sleeping and Waking and Growing Up

Our grandson Shane is a tall young man who turned seventeen this week, spent spring break looking at colleges and graduates from high school next year. (There’s a transition I have trouble grasping.) When he was a baby, he fussed before naps and bedtime. Patting his back to ease him into it, our daughter Snow, his mother, explained: “babies don’t like transitions.”

“Yep,” Phil confirms, when I say I’m writing about transitions, “we want things to stay the same, but we don’t want things to stay the same.”

Spring break is over. My mini-excursions away from home, my brief holiday from planning classes, from school email, from getting up early, Facebook, working on my translation project—all that is over. Anxiously scanning the calendar for how to fit in what must be done by Monday, I become a little fussy. It’s not only babies who don’t like transitions.


Posted in Humor, Memoir, Travel | 3 Comments